Echo in NYC

Musing into the void

Secrets, Arcs, and Tone

So I’m writing this sitting at Metatopia, a game design convention in New Jersey. I see friends and interesting people everywhere, and I have a semi-packed schedule exploring new games and helping designers bring their works to life.

I also recently played the game Event Horizon: Summit the previous weekend, and have the game Scapegoat by Sinking Ship Creations coming next weekend.

It’s definitely big LARP season, and it’s exhausting but exciting!

With that said, like always I’m not going to go into details about individual games. I’m more interested in comparing the experience I had last weekend and what I expect next weekend to prior events. There’s a lot of fascinating similarities, but also differences.

Both events have a similar loose structure. Your characters are there, things happen around you, and you respond to events but in the end make your own story. Both allow changing the outcome of the overall story to a certain extent, but events happen regardless of player action till a final outcome is determined by both player action and set story.

This happens because, like video games, in person games have a limited budget for props, costumes, and theatricality, so tend to have some sort of linearity in their plot. A completely freeform game, like College of Wizardry or Magischola, is possible, but tends to be chaotic.

One distinction I’m seeing between these events and the events I did of this past summer and last year though is secrets.

The previous games were transparent, in that they revealed to participants the overall story, and were very clear about characters beyond the participant’s own.

The fall games relied more on secrets. Participants didn’t know the overall story, (though Event Horizon could be opted in), and never got any information about other characters. There’s still a culture of players “spoiling” things to each other if requested, but the overall drive of the game is based around reactions to the revelations of these secrets.

Neither is inherently wrong. Plot twists are exciting and lend to a lot of drama and provide a good grist for roleplay.

With that said, I am finding more and more that I appreciate transparent games more.

By letting participants in on the overall story, that lets the organizers to clearly telegraph the intent they are going for. For a participatory medium like this, that’s a huge thing.

Additionally, by revealing everything participants can plan their character’s individual arc in more detail. Full control can never be had as the other participants will add to the chaos of the story, but it’s easier to know where to go.

Also, while it’s not necessarily an obstacle, I find stories that are transparent about what’s going on also allow a more explicit tone. People are all on the same page, and tailor their responses accordingly. This builds upon itself and lends to a more immersive and cohesive experience, at least in my experience.

In addition, I personally find there’s a cognitive load taken off me when I know what’s going on. If there’s secrets to be found, I have to spend a lot of energy figuring out what’s “really” going on, or try to be present during reveals. Many a game has been hurt by losing track of the story thread and feeling increasingly disconnected, or just not knowing how to engage with the story.

One thing to keep in mind is this medium invites chaos. Once an event starts nobody, including the organizers, can control what’s going on fully. They can only influence things.

And some love the chaos! However, I find if the chaos grows too much there tends to be less believable stories, and a less immersive experience.

Overall, I feel that going forward I’ll want to embrace more transparent games. I also want to try ones with secrets produced outside the USA, as I’m curious how participant culture affects things. Perhaps it’s a subtle competition that develops that I’m being turned off by?

I’m not sure. But I do know that as I grow and change, the types of events I find are changing as well. Regardless, I’m thankful I live in such a diverse world where I have the privilege of finding what fulfills me.

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